Our recalcitrant grandson finally made his appearance early Tuesday afternoon, two weeks late and after a day-and-a-half of hard labor in a Missoula hospital.
I had been joking that the baby would refuse to appear until after the Nov. 8 election. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he showed up when Hillary Clinton’s lead in the presidential polls went into double digits. The coast is clearing.
OK, no kidding around. My heart is full, and it is likely to spill over here.
I haven’t met the young fellow yet, and he doesn’t give a darn about me. He doesn’t even have a legal name yet—his parents are calling him Kiddo. That name could grow on me.
Everybody says that grandparenting beats the real thing—nearly all of the fun and hardly any of the hassle. As the news was sinking in this afternoon, I already was thinking of ways to fill Kiddo’s head with useless knowledge.
I should just speak German to him, I thought, because he now knows that language as well as he knows English. I should show him how to hold a baseball bat and bait a hook. I should give him timeless bits of grandfatherly advice: never eat in a restaurant that puts olives in Mexican food; read indiscriminately and abundantly; when feeling down, watch a Marx Brothers movie; if anybody tells you he’s just joking, he isn’t.
Then I reflected on some of the small pleasures of growing up that my grandson is unlikely to experience: the sweet smell of freshly mimeographed paper, the smooth flow of a fountain pen, the languid joys of a Sunday afternoon doubleheader.
For some reason, I thought of a question posed at the governor’s debate in Billings. Both candidates were asked what they would tell a 10-year-old kid growing up in Colstrip, and both promised that coal would remain an important part of Colstrip’s economy for decades to come.
Those answers made sense for politicians seeking to reassure troubled coal miners, but they struck me as less than worthless. I would tell a 10-year-old boy growing up in Colstrip, or a 10-hour-old boy growing up in Missoula, the same cliché: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Millions of people are working today at jobs that didn’t exist when I was 10 years old. Those jobs not only didn’t exist, but nobody I knew even imagined that they ever would. I would tell young Kiddo (in German, of course) to learn as much as he can and keep his options open.
Then came the weightier advice. When you hear some guy complain about athletes protesting the national anthem, I would say, ask when he last complained that TV almost never shows the national anthem at sports events anymore. Who is more patriotic, the player whose protest acknowledges the symbolic power of the anthem or the network that would rather show you another beer commercial instead?
When some guy says that school kids should have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord’s Prayer, ask when he last said the pledge or rattled off a borrowed prayer at home.
When a guy tells you that he is voting for a presidential candidate who has announced his intention to order soldiers to commit war crimes, ask why the guy isn’t complicit in those crimes.
But those inflated rhetorical devices soon faded into a recurring image. I kept thinking of a day at the old Billings Outpost office on Grand Avenue, where I had a majestic view of the unpaved alley running behind the office. One morning I spotted a mother duck leading a single-file parade of eight or 10 yellow ducklings down the alley, just half a block from the busiest street in Montana.
I have never shot a duck, but I have eaten a few. I bear ducks no ill will, but I readily sacrifice them to my own purposes. But something about watching that earnest mama fulfilling her maternal duties despite terrible risk and uncertainty seemed an act of inexhaustible courage.
And that undammed a Mississippi of memories, of close calls and near misses, of overturned canoes and screeching brakes, of low draft numbers and lost wars.
I remember feeling outraged the first time I saw my newborn daughter with a mosquito bite on her perfect skin. How dare mere nature invade her innocent world?
In Studs Terkel’s great book “Working,” a character observes that man is born innocent of everything but birth. Nobody gets out of here alive, and nobody goes unscarred. As I gradually get to know my college students each semester, I get hard lessons in the hazards of existence: the traffic accidents and cancer diagnoses, the addictions and cruelties, the random uncertainties of life.
But we keep at it, we humans, despite elections, despite everything. Like that mama duck, we keep throwing new generations into the fray, hoping somehow to make it to safe water. And sometimes we do.
As for me, I’m going to waddle over to Missoula.